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Taking Advantage of New Communications Technology Applications in West Africa

By Dr. Tunde Adegbola
Introduction

In West African today, we are faced with an important challenge of the effective use of new communication technology applications, as a means of achieving accelerated and sustainable development. This stems from the vitality of the communication of information in human societies. This vitality is fore-grounded even at a most basic level, by the simple fact, that community and communication both take their roots from the same concepts of being, living and working together for human development.
Man is a social animal and hence lives in communities. Most of the advances we humans have ever made, are direct consequences of our ability to communicate at levels that lower animal are incapable of. We are easily distinguished from lower animals because, unlike them, we are able to communicate not only simple objects but also complex notions and highly convoluted concepts. Hence, the capacity for communication at a much more complex level is a fundamental humanizing factor and is at the heart of all human development.
In recent times, there has been an ever increasing human capacity to communicate and interact. This increase in communication capacity has been brought about by the development of new information communication technology (ICT) and various applications of this technology. These new communication technology applications, have contributed to increasing both the efficiency and effectiveness of human communication, by reducing the time taken to communicate and increasing the geographical coverage of simple communication activities. Consequently, they bring about change at a pace and intensity that are simply revolutionary.
Change is an ever-present phenomenon in life and all living things learn to adapt to change in order to stay alive. However, when change happens at a pace and intensity that qualifies such change to be described as a revolution, many in society tend to be left behind and their inability to cope with the pace and intensity of change pushes them to the fringes of society. In West Africa today, the pace and intensity of change brought about by the development of new communication technology applications, may push us to the fringes of the information society, if we fail to take calculated decisions and make a deliberate effort to take advantage of this environment of change. This article provides some insight into the challenges of using new communication technology applications effectively in West Africa as a productivity enhancement for achieving accelerated and sustainable development.
Modern Information Communication Technology
Modern Information Communication Technology describes a set of old and new communication technologies that have converged to create new and complex applications. Some of the new communication applications, which could only have been dreamt of a few years ago, are now very common place. Less than 30 years ago, gadgets associated with James Bond spy thrillers would have the fictional British secret agent take a telephone call while traveling in a car. Today however, the challenge is no more the capacity to communicate on the move but the need to evolve and establish a healthy etiquette for mobile communication particularly in meetings rooms and classrooms. We have definitely come a long way!
Communication technologies that have converged into ICT can be viewed from three main areas. These are telecommunications technology, broadcasting technology and computer technology.
Telecommunications technology developed basically as a one-to-one communication scheme, in which one person connects to another person, in order to exchange information for the purposes of transacting business or merely for exchanging pleasantries. It facilitates dialogue, such that, each of the communicating parties, has the capacity to interrupt the other and make their viewpoints known.

Broadcasting technology however developed as a one-to-many communication scheme, in which many people were provided with information from one single source. However, it is basically a one-way communication scheme, in which the party at the receiving end of the communication process requires some other communication medium to offer feed-back.

Computer technology as distinct from the others, developed as a means for the processing of data as building blocks into information, as well as a means for the efficient storage and retrieval of such information.
Today however, these three technologies have all converged into one single technology, that we now call Information Communication Technology (ICT). No single one of these three components is seen anymore as separate from the others. By this convergence, telecommunications is no more just a one-to-one communication scheme, as modern ICT now makes it possible for one person to communicate with many people via the telephone, in what we now describe as teleconferencing. Traditional broadcasting structures in which only the ‘high and the mighty’ may have had the privilege  to broadcast and determine the direction of public opinion, is now replaced with a three tier broadcasting structure in which public, private and community level broadcasting media co-exist. At any appropriate time, any of the three tiers can constitute itself into the necessary feed-back channel, through which true communication in the form of dialogue can take place. Computing technology which started life as a means for merely crunching numbers into information can now do much more than merely process data for storage and retrieval of vital information. The computer has now become the essential tool for information dissemination. Computer networks now facilitate multi-layers of communication patterns over distances that were unimaginable a decade ago. Even the recently developed World Wide Web, has transformed in its relatively short lifespan and continues to transform. It started out for the average user, as a medium for the mere consumption of information but it has now become a medium for both the consumption and production of information. These new information technology applications have enhanced the capacity for participation and interactivity in development activities and processes. The challenge we in West Africa have, is how to take full advantage of what they offer.
The main challenge they present to us in the sub-region, is that of how to appropriate them, so that we will use them as productivity enhancement instruments for our various development objectives. Appropriating these new technologies demands that we develop and use them in ways that conform to our traditional community life styles, so as to promote and thereby sustain positive cultural practices that we have become comfortable with over the ages.
Challenges for the effective use of ICT in West Africa
There are four major challenges that West Africa needs to address if it is to appropriately harness ICT.  They include inadequate access to capital to develop and deploy the necessary infrastructural facilities; restrictive government policies; lack of harmonization in the regulatory frameworks across the sub-region and our very weak human resource capacity. While all four areas of the challenge demand attention, it will be rather futile to attempt a detailed examination of each of them. Rather, we should examine some of the ways by which we can use available resources creatively, to sidestep the limitations presented by the four major challenges.
As stated above, an important characteristic of modern ICT is the convergence of three important communication technologies that were historically disparate. These are telecommunications, broadcasting and computing. In its traditional use, telecommunications was conceived as a facility for communications between two individuals. In other words, it was a system for one-to-one communication, in which one person is connected to another for a short period of time. Broadcasting was conceived as a means of mass communication, in which one person is connected to a multitude of people usually for a relatively longer period of time. As for Computing, it did not even start out as a communication technology. It was conceived basically as a tool for the processing of numerical data that is raw material as a part of information. Today however, these three separate technologies have virtually fused into one single technology that is now described as information communication technology (ICT).
Appropriating Modern ICT Applications
Despite the challenges stated earlier to effective use of new technology applications in West Africa, their penetration in the sub-region and indeed, in most of the developing world is significant. There is therefore a strong case to be made to appropriate their use to some of our peculiar needs thereby sidestepping some of these challenges, at least in the interim. Most ICT gadgets reflect the cultures of the regions of the world in which they were developed. For example, the concepts of the Personal Computer (PC), Personal Digital Assistance (PDA), and the Mobile Phone, all reflect the very individualistic culture reflective of the Western world, while most of West Africa still upholds communal values. Developing patterns of use that converts the ownership structures of some of these gadgets from the individualistic to communal structures may help to reduce the cost of popularizing these technology applications in rural West Africa. The successful conversion of the mobile phone from an individual’s gadget, to a communal device by the ‘phone ladies’ in the Grameen Telecommunication scheme in Bangladesh is a success story that should be replicated in other aspects of modern ICT applications. At yet another level, most of our rural communities are still largely illiterate, learning by telling stories and memorizing facts, riddles and proverbs. We need to deliver to them the benefits of living in the Information Age. To this end, we can take advantage of the multimedia facilities offered by modern ICT, for the transfer of information in visual and aural modes. Having successfully developed communal patterns of ownership of relevant devices as suggested above, there would be scope for using them in ways that benefit our people even if those ways were not envisaged by those who conceived these devices originally. Certainly, the most important facility of modern ICT is the vast amount of information now available on the Global Information Infrastructure (GII) as represented by the Internet. This large volume of data, information and knowledge addressing diverse human needs, remain largely unavailable to millions of people in rural West Africa. With the recent impressive levels of development of Community Radio (CR) in the region however, there is a possibility of using community radio facilities to bring some of the relevant content of this vast information store to rural dwellers. Information on new high-yield crops, new methods of farming, new approaches to rural cooperative organizations, new methods of project financing, based on social capital. This level of exposure of rural communities and their people would radically transform the lives of people in rural West Africa. A new way of using community radio groups in many of the regions in Sierra Leone, would significantly reduce even the role of Government, in education, health and trade. Community radio used as a route to the Internet. The most challenging impediment of access to information through modern ICT facilities is language. Language has been described and aptly so as constituting the last six inches of the digital divide. Having launched satellites, installed marine cables and deployed inland copper, optical fibre or microwave distribution systems to bridge thousands of kilometers of the digital divide and finally putting a computer terminal on every desk, lap or palm in West Africa today, people in West Africa are still confronted with that last six inches between the computer screen and the eyes of the user. Language remains the only device that can bridge that last six inches of the digital divide. This is why, the use of multimedia, radio and other schemes that do not demand literacy or the use of any language left as a legacy by colonial rule becomes an imperative to make modern communication technology accessible to all. There is a vast difference between living in the information age and living in the information society. While the information age is essentially a temporal phenomenon, the information society, despite its strong tendencies towards virtualization of the concept of space, still carries very important connotations of physical geography. By this token, even though the whole world is today said to be in the Information Age, the vast majority of our people in the rural areas, are living at best at the fringes of both the virtual and physical dimensions of the Information Society. We need to feel compelled to bring them into the information society by creatively extending the benefits of modern ICT applications to them, in their natural habitat without demanding of them a change in their positive cultural practices. Finally, living in the information society in the information age demands contributing to the global information pool. Hence, having acquired the capacity to harness information from the GII and becoming exposed and awash with global information, we need mechanisms to protect our cultural values from undesirable external influences. One important way to achieve this is by also contributing our values into the global information pool. Hence, in addition to getting information from the Global Information Infrastructure, we also need to embark on content development. It is usually said, that the hunter that goes into a hunting expedition with a hunting team unarmed, is easily identified as the most vulnerable and is so attacked by the hunted animal. Going into the global information society of the Information Age without anything to offer, is like going into a hunting expedition unarmed

Dr. Tunde Adegbola is the Executive Director of African Languages Technology Initiative (Alt-I),  an Associate Lecturer at the Africa Regional Center for Information Science (ARCIS), University of Ibadan, Nigeria. He teaches courses in Artificial Intelligence and Information Networking and has special interests in ICT for development, with a focus on developing speech technologies for tone-based African Languages.

 

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